Telekinetic Teens

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(fan art by clonerh and Dan Sherratt)

AKIRA wasn’t the first mainstreamish film to incorporate gamelan elements in its soundtrack – Ryuichi Sakamoto applied synthesizers to a modern Japanese take on gamelan in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, five years earlier. But it probably is the only film to use gamelan almost exclusively as its driving energy, rather than just as incidental texture (The Girl With The Pearl Earring, The Golden Compass) or simply to denote some hazy ‘other’ ethnicity (Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire).

The AKIRA soundtrack is confusing. Listened to in its ‘Symphonic Suite’ version (the release which excises dialogue samples from the film), it’s a sprawling, maddeningly intricate work – a puzzlebox symphony. It goes against type. The predictable soundtrack for the 1988 anime of Katsuhiro Otomo’s epic manga should deal heavily in cyberpunky tropes – an industrial throb representing the post-WW3 gangland of Neo-Tokyo, maybe some squealing 80s rock guitar to energise the chase and fight sequences and keep the nerds onside. In truth, you’d expect it to sound a lot like Chu Ishikawa’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man score, released a year later.

Even the choice of composer for AKIRA is a weird – but also weirdly appropriate – one. Shoji Yamashiro is primarily a scientist, who dabbles in art. His several hundred person strong musical collective, Geinoh Yamashirogumi, is reputedly an army of non-musicians: journalists, salarymen, doctors, engineers, etc. Geinoh are committed students of indigenous folk musics from around the world, and their work has examined African, Chinese, and Persian forms, as well as the Indonesian gamelan that informs AKIRA.

Rumour has it that Shoji hadn’t seen a frame of footage or even read a page of script when he completed his AKIRA compositions for Geinoh. If this is true, then Geinoh’s AKIRA is essentially a soundtrack to the manga, rather than the film. So it was likely less burdened by being forced to adopt the more obvious stylistic conventions for scene-tracking (fast music for the action sequences, weepy strings for love scenes, ‘epic climaxes’ as preludes to denoument, etc., etc.). It also perhaps allowed Yamashiro more space to dwell on contextual elements, and think about how sound might be used thematically in conjunction with this tale of telekinetic teens, totalitarian governments, and manga metaphors for post-Hiroshima Japan.

The score conjures up half-remembered and misinterpreted ancient music, and lashes it firmly to the present with the addition of the Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer. This is a common trope in dystopian fiction, from Cloud Atlas to Red Dwarf, scraps of antiquated signifiers of the ‘old world’ become amplified and distorted into new symbolism, and the addition of modern technology to these signifiers gives an illusion of futuristicness.

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What is interesting is why Shoji chose to use gamelan for this, though, rather than what might be the more contextually obvious choice of gagaku – the similarly-minimal, ancient Imperial court music of Japan. Gagaku would experience a post-war revival, with modern classical composers such as Toru Takemitsu composing new works (termed ‘reigaku’) in the tradition of this 14th Century music. AKIRA plays with themes of Empire building, and the struggle to rebuild in Empire’s fallout, so a postmodern gagaku would carry strong subtextual significance.

The mythology of Javan gamelan dates its creation to 230 AD, when the god-king Sang Hyang Guru used tuned gongs to communicate with and summon other deities. Gamelan has a strong ritualistic history, but it’s also the traditional accompaniment in rural Indonesia for dance, poetry, and puppet performances.

Within the mythology of AKIRA, gamelan is invocatory.

It’s initially difficult to pick out words from the massed chanting that shushes and roars, weaving throughout the purposeful percussion of AKIRA – and most of us gaijin tend to switch off the decoding parts of our brain when listening to Japanese music, focusing instead on texture, pure sonics, the way words sound and feel when they scrape up against the other instrumentation rather than what they mean. But a bit of close listening reveals the ominous whooshes of humansound are actually made up of little more than the names of the four main characters: Kaneda, Tetsuo, Kei, and of course, Akira – whose own story is largely absent from the anime, but whose implied presence looms majestically over the narrative, somehow made even more Godlike by his absence, his existence the stuff of rumour, conjecture, and fervour.

Geinoh Yamashirogumi – Kaneda

Within the Geinoh symphony, Akira is a doom-laden premonition, a bad thought in a hungry animal. Even when tracking unrelated scenes, the soundtrack crafts its own narrative. Listened to as a consistent piece of music, AKIRA as a symphony is constantly building, gesturing urgently to something approaching. It never relaxes or lowers its guard, even when it disintegrates into the most minimal function ever – just sparse, lone woodblock, voice, and voids of silence. If gamelan was created for one god to communicate with his peers, then the AKIRA gamelan is full of nervous, rattling transmissions debating gods – so communicative and voice-like is the dialogue of the percussion that it could realistically represent the fearful psychic gossip between the Espers prophesying Akira’s return and Tetsuo’s nuclear tantrum.

Occasionally these percussion lines break with call and response and lock into tightly spiralling or dazzling scrolling patterns. This is a normal mode of gamelan, but when it happens in AKIRA it feels as though the sounds are no longer ‘talking’, but praying. Summoning.

In the Dolls’ Polyphony movement, the percussion is absent entirely, indicating another perspective in the sound-narrative – contrapuntal gamelan phrases now constructed out of re-pitched vocal squeaks and low chanting. In the anime, this piece soundtracks the scene where the toys in Tetsuo’s hospital room come to life – a childish psychic prank by his fellow inmates that so enrages him. Suddenly the relationship of a traditional music for puppet theatre doesn’t seem so incongruous with AKIRA. It’s also possible to read most of the characters as puppets of one sort or another – manipulated mostly by military or other government factions, with possibly only the apolitical, hedonistic Capsules retaining any sense of agency (even the Resistance are used to achieve Nezu’s political ambitions), ultimately incorruptible in their nihilism and lack of agenda.

So the AKIRA symphony works as both ritual and puppetshow, gleefully diverging from its presumed role as soundtrack. The fact that Geinoh’s electrifying 20th Century gamelan does work so ferociously against the hyper-vivid anime dream of Katsuhiro Otomo almost seems accidental. As a tone poem, it is perfect.

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The blu-ray edition of AKIRA has a brand new 20-bit remaster of the Symphonic Suite, mastered by Shoji Yamashiro himself: buy it